Why Is Simon de Montfort’s Parliament Significant?

Today is the 750th anniversary of the meeting of Simon de Montfort’s Parliament. In honor of the occasion, the BBC teamed up with both Houses of Parliament for ‘Democracy Day,’ a series of events and discussions focusing on the past, present, and future of democracy in the UK. But what was Montfort’s Parliament, and why is it important?

Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, was a longtime foe of King Henry III. Although the two men were on friendly terms at first (Montfort was married to Henry’s sister Eleanor), relations between the two men had soured by 1239. They continued to work together on occasion (Montfort took part in Henry’s campaign against King Louis IX of France and helped the King deal with the troublesome Duchy of Gascony), but Montfort opposed Henry’s demand for a subsidy during the Parliament of 1254. And during the ‘Mad Parliament’ of 1258, he forced Henry to accept the Provisions of Oxford, which aimed to limit the power of the Crown by giving a council of barons oversight of the kingdom.

The Provisions of Oxford didn’t last long, however. Henry managed to play the barons off one another, and in 1261, he formally repudiated the Provisions. Montfort initially fled the country, but he returned in 1263 at the behest of his fellow magnates. He started a rebellion with the aim of reinstating the Provisions of Oxford, but although Henry swiftly capitulated, the King’s son, Lord Edward (later Edward I), worked to undermine the new regime. Faced with civil war, both sides agreed to refer their dispute to Louis IX of France, but when he ruled in favor of Henry in January 1264, open conflict became inevitable. However, Montfort won an amazing victory at the Battle of Lewes, capturing Henry, Lord Edward, and Henry’s brother, Richard of Cornwall, in one fell swoop. Although Henry was allowed to keep his throne, effective power rested with a council of nine chosen by a triumvirate consisting of Montfort, the Earl of Gloucester (Gilbert de Clare), and the Bishop of Chichester (Stephen Bersted).[1]

Despite Montfort’s success, his position was perilous. Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Provence, was amassing an army in France and threatening to invade, and the papal legate excommunicated Montfort and his supporters. Montfort also faced widespread opposition from among the nobility. Consequently, he sought support from other segments of society. As the contemporary chronicler Arnold fitz Thedmar observed, “the community of the middle people of the Kingdom of England” rejected Louis IX’s verdict, so it made sense for Montfort to court them.[2]

Relief of Simon de Montfort from the US House of Representatives chamber. Photo courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

Relief of Simon de Montfort from the US House of Representatives chamber. Photo courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

The result was that Montfort’s Parliament was a cherry-picked assembly designed to support the new regime. Only 24 nobles were summoned versus 120 churchmen (although the pope was hostile, many English clergy were supportive[3]). His Parliament also included two knights from each county (the ‘Knights of the Shire’)[4], two burgesses from the towns, and four men from each of the Cinque Ports.[5] Although knights had been summoned before, the introduction of representatives from the towns seems to have been a novelty.[6] Also, these representatives were allowed to discuss affairs of state instead of confining themselves to questions of taxation.[7]

The main items on the new Parliament’s agenda were the enforcement of the Provisions of Westminster (a series of administrative and legal reforms that the barons forced Henry to adopt in 1259) and deciding the terms for Lord Edward’s release from captivity.[8] The knights seem to have played an active role in the Parliament’s deliberations, and John Maddicott has argued that they raised grievances on behalf of their constituents. For example, Parliament was told that the counties felt burdened by the cost of defending against Queen Eleanor’s threatened invasion the previous year.[9] Parliament also judged several legal cases using the standards set out in the Provisions of Westminster.[10]

But like many medieval Parliaments, Montfort’s Parliament didn’t last long, and it was dissolved in March 1265. Meanwhile, Montfort was increasingly unpopular. Even his allies started to grumble about his wealth and power. Richard of Cornwall’s estates had been given to Montfort’s son Guy, while Montfort himself amassed a princely fortune of 11,000 marks and traveled with more retainers than Henry III.[11] When Lord Edward escaped from captivity in May and joined forces with Montfort’s erstwhile ally the Earl of Gloucester, the Montfort’s days were numbered. He was killed in the Battle of Evesham in August.

In the short term, Montfort’s Parliament achieved very little. The terms for Lord Edward’s release became moot when he escaped, and the parts of the Provisions of Westminster that limited the King’s power were annulled after Montfort’s death (though the parts dealing with the administration of justice were confirmed by the Statute of Marlborough in 1267). However, Montfort’s Parliament affirmed the place of the knights and burgesses in England’s polity. They weren’t yet indispensable—Henry’s last six Parliaments consisted entirely of magnates[12]—and it wasn’t until the next century that knights and burgesses, or the ‘Commons’ as they would soon be known, would become a regular part of Parliament. While it’s a bit rich to call Montfort a herald of democracy given his ruthless gerrymandering of Parliament and his illegal seizure of power, his regime can be seen as a prologue to the later disputes between Crown and Parliament that would tear Britain apart in the 17th century.

NOTES

[1] Although the triumvirate was theoretically responsible to Parliament, Montfort ended up playing the dominant role. David A. Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: Britain, 1066-1284 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 377.

[2] Carpenter, 378.

[3] Carpenter argues that their support may have been motivated by Montfort’s personal piety as well as his connections with the famous Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln. Carpenter, 379-380.

[4] Initially the knights weren’t representatives of the county but rather lesser tenants-in-chief. Magna Carta declared that taxation required the consent of both the greater and lesser tenants-in-chief.

[5] The Cinque Ports were a group of towns in Kent and Sussex that received special privileges from the Crown in exchange for agreeing to maintain a certain number of ships for the King’s use. The freemen of the Ports were considered barons since the towns’ contributions to the navy were considered analogous to land tenure per baroniam. The Cinque Ports no longer send special representatives to Parliament, but they do elect barons who get to carry a canopy over the Sovereign during the coronation.

[6] However, some scholars argue that representatives from the towns were summoned to earlier Parliaments, though definitive proof one way or the other is lacking.

[7] Raising money was, after all, Parliament’s initial raison d’être.

[8] John Maddicott, “Simon de Montfort, the Battle of Lewes and the Development of Parliament” (lecture delivered as part of the Battle of Lewes Conference, April 14, 2012), retrieved from http://sussexpast.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Simon-de-Montfort-the-Battle-of-Lewes-and-the-development-of-Parliament.pdf.

[9] Maddicott, op. cit. Apparently, the Government responded by agreeing to reimburse the knights for the expenses they incurred while attending Parliament instead of forcing their constituents to foot the bill.

[10] Maddicott, op. cit.

[11] J. S. Hamilton, The Plantagenets: History of a Dynasty (London: Continuum, 2010), 48.

[12] Maddicott, op. cit.

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